The Big Ten decided in June that it could expand without Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish came out of realignment roulette with their coveted football independence still intact.
Will Notre Dame ever become a member of the Big Ten? It's anyone's guess, but Notre Dame's schedule always will have a Big Ten flavor to it. The Brian Kelly era begins this fall with three consecutive games against Big Ten opponents, as Notre Dame hosts Purdue (Sept. 4) and Michigan (Sept. 11) before heading to Michigan State (Sept. 18).
To help preview the Notre Dame-Big Ten matchups, I sought the wisdom of colleague Brian Bennett, who blogs about Notre Dame for ESPN.com.
Brian Bennett: Hello, Adam. These aren't exactly colossal tilts, since none of these four teams finished with a winning record in 2009. But interest always perks up when Notre Dame is involved. Out of the troika of Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State, which of those teams do you think will be the best -- and therefore the toughest game for the Irish to win?
Adam Rittenberg: Wassup, BB. How'd South Beach treat you? You're right about Notre Dame always moving the needle. The Irish could play Savannah State and still dominate "SportsCenter." The road game at Michigan State jumps out to me as Notre Dame's toughest test. Despite Charlie Weis' promises about never losing to the Spartans again after the 2005 game, Michigan State has won two of the teams' past three meetings and had a great chance to win last year. Quarterback Kirk Cousins won't make the same mistakes again -- Kyle McCarthy is finally gone, isn't he? -- and the Spartans have the weapons to test the Notre Dame defense. Michigan State's defense also should be much improved as All-American linebacker Greg Jones returns to the fold. But the more I look at things, all three games could be really competitive.
Before getting to Michigan, let's talk about the Purdue game. I'm really intrigued by this opener for both teams, as the Brian Kelly era kicks off and Robert Marve makes his debut at quarterback for the Boilers. What's your take on the Purdue-Notre Dame matchup?
BB: Well, I know that Kelly had better not lose that game in his home opener unless he wants to start seeing his face on some unflattering billboards in South Bend. Both teams should be able to score some points, and there will be two quarterbacks in new systems, which could be interesting. But I think if you give Kelly all summer to prepare for a game, you're asking for trouble, and the Irish usually have Purdue's number at home. What's your take on that game?
AR: Really excited for that one. Purdue should be pretty dynamic on offense with Marve, Keith Smith and others, but this just feels like the type of game Notre Dame wins. The Notre Dame mystique might be fading, but only one Notre Dame coach (Dr. Lou in 1986) has lost his first game with the Irish since Elmer Layden back in 1934. I even think back to openers like 2003 against Washington State, where Notre Dame rallied from a 19-3 halftime deficit to win in overtime. I agree with your shootout theory, as neither defense really impresses me. Expect big numbers from both Marve and Dayne Crist. While the game certainly could go either way, I'm leaning toward the Irish.
Let's move on to Week 2. We all thought last year's thriller in Ann Arbor meant big things ahead for both teams. Instead, it just showed that neither Michigan nor Notre Dame could play a lick of defense. In case you haven't heard, Rich Rodriguez needs this one. Badly.
What's your take on that matchup?
BB: As a Big East guy, I'm excited to see Kelly vs. Rodriguez, the two best Big East coaches of the past decade. I was at the game in Ann Arbor last year, and it was one of those who-gets-the-ball-last contest. It could be more of the same this year, since neither defense looks to be all that much improved. I see this as a huge swing game for both teams; if Notre Dame wins, there's a real chance the Irish get off on a roll to start the year. But Michigan -- and Rodriguez -- probably need it more given the pressure the Wolverines are under to win this year.
I hope the old-school Irish fans are ready to see two new-age spread offenses give Touchdown Jesus a workout. I think it will all come down to whether Bob Diaco's defense can hold the fort against Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson or whoever is lining up under center for Michigan. Manti Te'o might have to make 30 tackles. I give the Wolverines a slight edge in this game given their experience in their system, but this is almost too close to call. What do you think?
AR: Totally agree on the swing game here, and that it means more for Rodriguez and Michigan than Kelly and Notre Dame. It'll be a lot easier to examine this matchup after Week 1. Michigan goes up against a very good Connecticut team and will need to show improvement on defense and more discipline on offense to win. As stated earlier, Notre Dame's defense needs to show up against Purdue or pay a heavy price. But even if both defenses are better, we're going to see a very unconventional type of Michigan-Notre Dame game with these two head coaches. There's nothing old-school about this game, and it might come down to which defenses forces a few stops or creates takeaways. Michigan doesn't know its starting quarterback, but I really think Rodriguez's offense will do damage whether Forcier or Robinson is calling signals. While Kelly has proven himself as an offensive genius at every level, I like Michigan's offense more in this game. On the flip side, until seeing the Wolverines play, there's not much to like about their defense. Another close contest here, but like you, I'm leaning toward the Maize and Blue.
OK, Week 3, Notre Dame at Michigan State. Both teams underachieved in 2009, and both have higher hopes for this fall. What's your take?
BB: Ah, yes, the Cincinnati Bowl. Mark Dantonio vs. the man who succeeded him with the Bearcats. Well, this will be the first real test to see if Kelly's team can line up and play a true, smash-mouth Big Ten style. This is the type of game Notre Dame will have to win if it wants to get back to the elite level it so desperately seeks.
The Spartans have a good core returning, including an experienced quarterback in Cousins and the best defensive player on the field in Jones. It's also a road game for the Irish, and this series is almost always close. I just get the feeling that Notre Dame will have a little too much offensive firepower against a more plodding style. Tell me if I'm wrong about this.
AR: I was going to call it the Brian Bennett Classic, but the Cincinnati Bowl works, too. And what's this you're saying about plodding? Let me remind you, sir, that Michigan State led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns and ranked second in the league in pass offense (269.4 ypg). Although Dantonio is a Jim Tressel disciple and will try to run the ball more this fall, arguably Michigan State's biggest strength is its depth at wide receiver/tight end. Cousins will throw the ball and try to attack a Notre Dame secondary that has been suspect in recent years. You promise me McCarthy's gone, right?
I'm really interested to see if Michigan State's defense improves, especially in the secondary. The Spartans had only six interceptions last season and got burned far too often. If they can hold Crist and my man-crush Michael Floyd in check, they might really make some noise this year. But Floyd is the type of play that could drive Michigan State nuts. This is another game that could go either way, but I like Michigan State.
OK, final predictions: Notre Dame vs. the Big Ten in 2010?
BB: I like the Irish to go 2-1, beating Purdue and splitting against the Michigan schools. All as a buildup to an appearance in the 2011 Big Ten title game against Nebraska. Just kidding. Your final record for the Big Ten?
AR: I'm going to match your pick, but with the Big Ten going 2-1 against Notre Dame. As much as I like Purdue this season, Notre Dame wins the opener before falling to the Michigan schools. All three games will be decided by 10 points or fewer. Should be great. Can't wait.